I fully respect someone who wishes to live a lifestyle and food choices based on veganism, and products from honey bee colonies usually won’t be for them. What is frustrating though are the misleading and misinformed statements found on some websites regarding beekeeping, or that imply the undoubtable poor practices of some large enterprises in some countries applies to all of beekeeping.
The comments below relate to small scale beekeepers who keep bees because they find honeybees a fascinating insect and beekeeping an absorbing skill. I would always encourage someone to buy honey from a local beekeeper, either direct or sold in local shops and outlets, rather than buying the blended, usually imported and often suspiciously cheap honey sold in the large national chains.
If something is labelled Honey, then it MUST be the product produced by honeybees. Anything else is miss-selling and should be reported to trading standards, as it’s actually illegal to pass off another product as honey under the 2003 Honey Regulations: “honey” means the natural sweet substance produced by Apis mellifera bees from the nectar of plants or from secretions of living parts of plants or excretions of plant-sucking insects on the living parts of plants which the bees collect, transform by combining with specific substances of their own, deposit, dehydrate, store and leave in honeycombs to ripen and mature;”
To avoid legal challenge, vegan “honey” products are often labelled using a similar sounding made up name such as Honay, Honee etc. I’m sure it’s very nice, but it isn’t Honey, it’s a different product entirely.
“Beekeepers take all the honey and feed sugar to the bees”
Any beekeeper regularly feeding sugar to their bees isn’t managing the colonies in the honeybees or the beekeepers best interest. Sugar costs money, its time consuming taking sugar syrup to the hive, and requires more equipment in the form of feeders and extra supers etc.
Beekeepers judge how much honey to take off a hive whilst leaving stores for the colony to use to take it through the winter. A colony needs roughly 30-40kg of honey to survive from October to the following April. Usually we get it right, sometimes we get it wrong. A winter might be unexpectedly harsh or (more likely) the spring starts later than is usual or is very wet. The beekeeper certainly doesn’t want to see their bees starve, so may need to feed a colony to ensure it’s survival until the spring flowers appear. At Read Apiary our aim is not to have to feed the bees sugar syrup by leaving colonies with enough honey, occasionally though it’s a necessity to ensure a specific colonies survival.
“Colonies are destroyed post-harvest to keep costs down”
Colonies that have thrived and produced a good honey crop represent a healthy and genetically favourable strain of honeybee suited to it’s local environment. The beekeeper wants to keep such a colony, it’s queen and genetic line alive and well for next year, and the years after. We certainly don’t destroy colonies on cost grounds. Very very (very) occasionally, very sadly, a colony has to be destroyed for health reasons – but this is almost always at the request of a government appointed bee inspector. I’ve yet to have to do that in over 20 yrs of beekeeping (touch wood).
“Queen bees have their wings clipped by beekeepers to prevent them leaving the hive to produce a new colony elsewhere”
Clipping one of the wings of a queen doesn’t prevent the queen leaving the hive. It does however prevent that queen from flying far with a prime swarm. It’s a form of management that delays (but doesn’t prevent) the first swarm from flying away. The bees will eventually swarm anyway, it just buys the beekeeper a few more days. There is no evidence that it causes the Queen any distress – she continue to lay eggs and thrive successfully. Ill or damaged queens are soon dispatched by the colony.
“During swarming, honey production usually drops, so many beekeepers try to prevent this. They either trap the queen inside the hive or ‘requeen’ “
Swarming is how honeybee colonies replicate, it’s a natural process that a beekeeper works with if they are to retain a colony and produce a honey harvest – by essentially doing the swarm themselves using additional equipment. A beekeeper can’t prevent swarming, but they can work with it to retain a strong colony.
Trapping the queen inside is not a recognised swarm prevention technique, and is unlikely to work anyway as the colony will have already started raising new queens.
Re-queening is precisely what a colony that has swarmed will do naturally. Most small scale beekeepers will retain the old queen in a separate small hive (a nuc) for while, and let the main colony raise a new queen.
Swarms can be a nuisance for members of the public, and it’s important the beekeeper minimises annoyance to neighbours.
“Let bees keep their beeswax”
Honey bees produce beeswax from glands on their thorax – it takes energy and time (although a strong colony can build new comb very quickly if there’s plenty of food available). Beekeepers will re-use the honey comb used to store honey (in the supers) over and over again, as this helps the bees not have to make new comb every year for honey storage and helps the beekeeper as more bees are available for nectar collection.
Surplus beeswax on small scale comes from the capping removed to extract the honey, broken comb and comb produced by the bees away from the main frames – often as a result of congestion or poorly fitting frames. Beekeepers will also remove old and dirty frames from the main brood box to ensure the health of the colony is maintained.